Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA

Issue No. 12 Fall 2016

Black Snakes Shed Their Blood Hell Skins:  University of the West and the Ground of Women’s Spiritual Liberation


Pamela Ayo Yetunde, J.D., Th.D.

Guest Editor

Pamela Ayo Yetunde, J.D., M.A., Th.D., was the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation Visiting Scholar-in-Residence at University of the West, Fall, 2016.  Ayo earned her Doctor of Theology in Pastoral Counseling degree from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.  She earned her M.A. in Culture and Spirituality from Holy Names University in Oakland, CA and her law degree from Indiana University School of Law, Bloomington.  Ayo is a pastoral counselor in private practice, and has also worked in spiritual care in hospital, hospice, and mental health care settings.  She is a Community Dharma Leader certified by Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA.

Teaching the Women in Buddhism course at University of the West in Rosemead, CA, has been one of my greatest honors and delights.  Before teaching this course, I had no idea, even after practicing Buddhism in the U.S. for 15 years, that there were Buddhist teachings from ancient India that likened women to treacherous and poisonous black snakes.  Nor did I know there were ancient Japanese Buddhist teachings that condemned all women to a blood-pool hell where they would be punished in death, by being forced to drink the blood of dead women who had menstruated.  Their “sin?” They had menstrual periods.  Period.   It may not be apparent why I consider these horrifying discoveries part of my delight and honor, but if you were in my class, endeavoring with me as my students do, you would understand the energizing dynamic that takes place when we discover, analyze, critique, and reconstruct new pathways of women’s (and men’s) liberation, together.


My class of women and one man, lay and monastic, of different nationalities, have struggled together to understand how a religion, philosophy, way of life, and psychology that espouses compassion and lovingkindness, nonduality and female deities, could also express ignorance and hatred toward women, including even the misogynistic and femicidal mythology around The Buddha’s mother’s pregnancy, childbirth experiences, and her death. Yet, to avoid totalizing Buddhism into one discipline with one meaning, we regularly remind ourselves to say Buddhisms or in so-and-so Buddhism or in such-and-such Buddhism.  Dividing in this way has not been an attempt to conquer Buddhism, but has been an attempt to honor the particularities of time, geography and what I call “the anthropology of jurisprudence” – how laws impact what a woman is understood to be, and “Buddhologies of the ‘Impure,’” the ways some Buddhist teachings have attempted to render women as biologically and ontologically impure.


In addition to misogynistic laws and practices that predated Buddhism, there were also challenges around women’s literacy.  The older Buddhisms existed in places where common women were not allowed or encouraged to be intelligent.  As centuries passed and as Buddhist teachings were being written down, some early Chinese and Japanese women were taught to read.  There seems to be a connection between women’s literacy, access to the writings, and understanding of the teachings from their perspectives.  Millennia later, Buddhism comes to the U.S. during socially and politically tumultuous times, where the public school system educates girls as well as boys.  U.S. women, unlike early Buddhist women in other countries, were not forced to depend on men for their very lives, nor were they begging men for permission to practice Buddhism, nor literally burning their faces to be less attractive to men so that they could be in Buddhist religious orders.  However, U.S. women today live within the particular U.S. patriarchal context which privileges men’s work outside the home by paying men more for the same work, privileging women as primary child caregiver at home, leading to male-dominated business, political and religious leadership (though that is changing).  Perhaps the biggest challenge for many U.S. Buddhist women who suffer in their temples and sanghas from androcentrism and misogyny (not all women are suffering in this way), is the lack of feminist, womanist, mujerista, African or Asian-American women’s critical Buddhology – in other words, there seems to be no widely-embraced method of critiquing Buddhist teachings on women, from women’s cultural lenses.  Methods, like those created by the late Rita Gross, exist, but are not widely accepted.  Nevertheless, in my Women in Buddhism class, we work with who we are and what we have.  We identify areas of suffering, and we attempt to co-create paths to liberation with the heart of compassion, wisdom, and freedom.  Co-creating in this way is our contribution to reviving Buddhist humanism.


In this issue of American Buddhist Women, you will find essays and poem by six people at University of the West including:  Chaplaincy Department Chair Rev. Dr. Victor Gabriel, Chaplaincy Professor Rev. Dr. Tina Jitsujo Gauthier, Chaplaincy Club President Caroline Netschert, Ph.D. in Religion student Ven. Hau Tran, and the University’s Institutional Effectiveness and Planning Officer Rev. Monica Sanford, who is also the campus chaplain.  The sum of these contributors represents perspectives from Tibetan, Zen, and Interfaith Buddhist perspectives.  We are also representing different nationalities, ethnicities, genders, and sexualities.  Our opinions and insights are not offered to represent any positions the University of the West may have taken, but simply to demonstrate that University of the West includes a rich learning environment for a variety of people and perspectives.  For example, in reading “I am a Woman:" Finding Freedom in Seeing Clearly by Jitsujo, I am struck by how rare it is to be to be taught by a woman Zen priest who is also teaching in a university setting.  In Jitsujo’s essay you see how she brings Buddhist practice and academic scholarship together, seamlessly, for the awakening of spiritual care professionals.


University of the West is not a religious university, but a university founded on foundational, humanistic Buddhist educational principles.  Moreover, University of the West was founded by Buddhists, who know how literacy and education discrimination against girls and women negatively impacts everyone.  With that in mind, the university offers spiritual care to our university community.  Chaplain Sanford’s essay, “Yes, And: Liberated Women for Women’s Liberation,” undermines the myth that Buddhist chaplains are not committed to justice-making endeavors.  Sanford demonstrates her sensitivity to family dynamics and values, a young woman’s life cycle changes, and the new realizations about patriarchy a young woman will face outside her family system.  The combination of Jitsujo’s and Sanford’s articles makes one thing plain – women at University of the West have a voice and are using it.


In addition to women who are employed at the university, there are women who are students and student-leaders.  Chaplaincy Club President Caroline Netschert is obviously a leader, as well as an exemplary student and poet.  I have had the pleasure of Netschert’s presence and participation in two of my classes:  Women in Buddhism and Spiritual Formation.  In her essay, “Women and Poetry as a Tool for Liberation,” we find Netschert reconnecting with her pre-Buddhist poetic liberatory impulse, integrating Buddhism into that impulse, and experiencing immediacy and wholeness through writing dharma poems — an original women’s Buddhist spiritual practice.


In reference to practice, Chaplaincy Department Chair Dr. Victor Gabriel offers us his insights into how Chӧd became a feminized Tibetan Buddhist practice.  It is remarkable that Gabriel, a man, demonstrates such sensitivity to the desires, power, perseverance, and influence of Tibetan Buddhist women in the U.S.  Gabriel’s contribution, combined with Jitsujo’s, Sanford’s, Tran's, and Netschert’s contributions, establish a variety of concerns and resiliencies for women in the Buddhisms in the U.S.  What I have appreciated about Tran's presence is his equanimity and reminders that true Buddhism always points in the direction of compassion.  His poem demonstrates that feminine wisdom principle can exist in male form.  On behalf of my students and colleagues, I wish to share our collective hope that you will be inspired to feel the spark of your expanding heart and allow it to stretch.  We hope you will feel the pull of your higher mind seeking knowledge, and feed it.  Know that your yearning for connection, knowledge, and growth have a place to manifest.  Let’s meet April 1, 2016 at Sakyadhita USA’s conference at University of the West.


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